Saturday, June 29, 2013

CPM Activity Report #3 - June 29, 2013

When we last left off, I mentioned that we had a meeting coming up with an important staff member in Shanghai – CCP Praetorian. This took place in the middle of the night again between Wednesday and Thursday of last week – 3am for those on the East Coast of the US, 7am in Reykjavik (represented by CCP Dolan) and 2pm in the afternoon in Shanghai. Praetorian called the meeting with the CPM to discuss the changes taking place inside the Shanghai office, and to outline what is now a concrete, public,and focused development road map for the next several months to be rolled out across a series of "rapid fire updates" made possible by recent breakthroughs working with Sony's QA process.

Let's start at the beginning. The most important thing to share is that as of this meeting, its readily apparent now to the CPM that CCP is doubling down on Dust 514's success, investing more resources into bringing staff on board, focusing their direction, and iterating on the processes that have brought the game this far. Dust is clearly one of the company's major long term investments – and despite the rough launch this year, CCP seems adamant on figuring out what they can do to open the pipeline wider – both in terms of total content output, the timing of the updates, and most importantly – communication. 

Now I completely understand that the community has heard this before, but there's no denying here that physical growth is actually taking place. CCP is spending cold hard money, increasing the number of people working on the game, reshuffling teams, and passing out new assignments according to the road map. Disappointing press reviews and a growing malaise amongst the core community be damned, CCP is throwing coal on the fire and putting their noses to the grindstone regardless. I'm actually much more excited now to see what happens in the coming months given this much tangible evidence of investment in Dust 514's success.

The growth taking place doesn't just extend to the many job postings that are up as part of push to grow the studio – there are personnel coming over from Reykjavik as well. Most notable of these staff moves is the the man that will now be overseeing Dust 514's game design – Craig Scott, also known as CCP Flying Scotsman. Scotsman is one of the former Lead Designers on EVE Online – and seems quite keen on bringing in some of the processes and protocols that have worked well on the other side of the globe into the Shanghai office. I've spoken with Flying Scotsman personally about the need for the designers to share their work in progress with the community as frequently as possible, and in a timely fashion before a release is made, and he seems quite supportive of this as well.

We're all familiar with the level of community engagement that CCP FoxFour and CCP Nullarbor have shown, so I see this blending of staff and talent across the two international studios as a healthy sign of growth. And don't worry – both Nullarbor and FoxFour will be staying in Reykjavik as part of Team True Grit and will continue cranking out FW and PC improvements despite all the other shuffling around them.

While we're on the subject of game design I'd like to take a moment and also commend CCP Remnant for his outstanding level of communication the past couple of weeks. Not only for sharing the Commando dev blog in advance of the patch release, with all of the stats and details we've been asking for, but for his candid conversations on the internal forums with the CPM about his upcoming work. Remnant posted a lengthy breakdown of all the changes he'd considering for a certain set of dropsuits (hopefully part of 1.3), including not only precise numerical changes as well adjustments to racial bonuses, but also plenty of commentary on what he was aiming for with the package. We had a chance to provide our own detailed notes and express what we've heard from the community regarding the given role, and its been a really productive conversation. For those of you that keep asking all the time if the CPM discusses balance with CCP – the answer is emphatically yes. This exactly the sort of "shop talk" I've referenced in my earlier reports, and the more designers open up to the community, whether its in the safer environment of the CPM internal forums or whether they plunge headlong into IRC party, its a healthy practice we all want to encourage.

So the studio is growing, CCP's trying to step up their game, devs are opening up about their work – it all sounds great. That said, I think the real question most of you are asking by now is what exactly will they be doing with this new found gusto? Well, they've come up with a road map. Just over a dozen bullet points that need to be hammered out in the coming months. Each focal point had a slide of its own during our meeting, and Praetorian had plenty to say about what they want to develop in each area. This is a pretty big moment, to be honest – not just because its the first time they've sat the CPM down and pulled back the curtain on the whole show, but because the immediate focal points so closely align with the needs we've been expressing for the last year as a community. New player experience. Performance. Aiming. Balance. Movement. Game modes. Bug squashing. An actual marketplace. Factional Warfare. Planetary Conquest. You can read the full list right here – its the same list of slides that were discussed with the CPM, so this is definitely the new road map for the immediate future. (The bullet order is also the order of priority, descending.) Regrettably this kind of incredibly important information somehow ended up buried in the middle of a forum thread, when frankly it should have been a dev blog all of its own. But I'm glad to see progress nonetheless – every bit of transparency counts.

The execution of this road map will supposedly be aided by these new "rapid-fire updates" made possible by recent iterations on the QA process with Sony. Starting with Uprising 1.2 and 1.3, players should begin to see smaller combinations of content and patch releases on closer to a
monthly basis, as supposed to the quarterly expansion model they've been working with since the beginning of beta. Praetorian was cool, calm, collected, and exceedingly confident that Sony was ready to let them start cranking this stuff out, which is encouraging.

The days since the meeting have been spent on the aforementioned forum and skype chat with Nullarbor, FoxFour, and Remnant in particular – and during this time we've also seen the release of four significant dev blogs:

CCP LogicLoop, CCP Tigris, and CCP Stiffneck discussing their design of game modes

CCP Praetorian announcing Uprising 1.2

CCP Sentinel outlining the new recruiter reward system

CCP Remnant's unveiling of the Commando Suit

Several of these were shown to the CPM in advance on our internal forums with a request for feedback, which is a great practice and exactly the sort of communication and input level we really appreciate. Overall this has been one of the most productive weeks we've spent since right before the deployment of Uprising on 5/14 – and I have every reason to believe our job is about to get a lot more demanding in the months ahead. CCP is getting to work, they're asking for our help more and more, and we won't be able to do it without the support from you in the community. Thanks for keeping in touch everyone, see you next week.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

CPM Activity Report #2 - June 18, 2013

As promised, I'm back again for another weekly update on the CPM and our activities working with CCP.   When we last spoke, I mentioned that we'd received our first Community Management Report from CCP and would be reviewing it to provide feedback, which I'm happy to share with readers here as well.  Thankfully, since this document was also shown to Fanfest attendees - much of its content structure is publicly released information, even if I can't go into detail about this week's particular contents.

Without further ado, let's jump into the document and break it down section by section.  The CMR begins with a general overview of forum activity, including percentages of "positive, negative, and neutral" posts as generated by the procedural software used to scan the entirety of the forums.  Also included are word clouds of various terms and how they're connected to each other (via correlation and proximity to one another, I can only assume), with custom human-added annotation to explain what topic or issue is generating the highest frequency words in the cloud.  These annotations are great in that they demonstrate that the community team is really going through the software-generated  report and making sure it accurately highlights the issues generating key high-frequency terms.  Last but not least, the overview includes some metrics on unique author counts, average posts per user, and average length of post.   

While this overview is impressive in terms of how thorough the data is at measuring the activity, I can't say I found it particularly useful.  The word clouds certainly don't indicate issues that are most important, only those that are the most popular.  And given our current forum culture, where entertainment level trumps practical value in terms of attracting more posters, all this is really doing at the moment is highlighting a lot of the issues causing the most drama, or highlighting events hosted by CCP that we already knew were underway.  

I still maintain that the best way to turn this cultural tide in the forum community is for CCP to take a pro-active approach and contain conversations using stickied threads posted by developers that ask for feedback. These directly reward and encourage those that know how to behave themselves and contribute constructively with the knowledge that the devs are actually following along and listening carefully.  As these continue, I think you'll see the community start to police itself and actually turn on the few trolls that want to come along and ruin an otherwise decent conversation with the devs.  This continues to be a message I raise with the community team every chance I get, and I won't stop until I see an actual lasting trend on the forums where developers bring their works-in-progress to you early in the process where feedback matters the most.

After the overview is a brief "Themes" component with a few paragraphs of subjective reflection on the state of the community in the past week, and the initiatives that the community team is working on to support them.  Included here was discussion of some of the information they were working on obtaining for the CPM, as well as highlighting player reactions from the recent Templar event.  Notably, this is a human-generated piece that doesn't involve forum-scanning or metric analysis, this is purely from the eyes and ears of the community team themselves.

The real meat of the document, landing at over half of its 23 pages, is the "Feedback" section that begins with a summary of both positive and negative talking points.  After briefly covering the items the community was giving praise for, the report jumps deep into the top list of new issues and bugs reported by players, with detailed accounting of both the issues raised and including links to various goodposts on each topic.  This is where it pays not to troll, and to just straight up post feedback without whining, bitching, or finger-pointing.  The QQ/rage posts don't make the reports, but ones that are constructively critical do - so clean up your posting and stay professional and your words could end up in the report on a dev's desk in their unadulterated form.

These threads also end up in the regular updates that CCP Commander Wang has been posting to keep track of the community team's meetings with the designers/programmers and the items they've presented, so you can also follow along and see what type of content is ending up in the weekly CMR.  While only the topics are listed in Wang's public thread, each item gets essentially a full page dedicated to breaking down the issue, any root cause/pain point, and listing the most practically useful posts explaining the problem and possible solutions.  Again, the key word here is useful.  Telling CCP how mad you are and how awful a feature is doesn't make for something a designer or programmer can utilize - but step by step bug reproductions?  Or specific gameplay elements that are frustrating, and why?  This is the meat of what makes the report, and it's important for everyone to understand this and post accordingly.

The final section was just plain fun.  Some player-generated screenshots found on the web, and other humor posted in the forums and elsewhere on the internet.  It's nice to see that the community team isn't all serious bizness and appreciates the fun people are having celebrating the game and the community - and also to know that they look far beyond the forums when taking into account how the community is developing and documenting what they've been up to.

The CPM's overall feedback of the CMR?  Plain and simple - "This is great, you're clearly listening - but how exactly does this document get used by the designers?  When in the process does this information hit them?  How much time is there for them to act on it?  How useful do the designers themselves consider the report to be?"  The bottom line is that for all of us on the CPM, who are waist deep in forums, Skype chats, IRC - most of the content in the weekly CMR's aren't really news to us.  We've heard this from you before, and know that these are indeed the top issues, but what we really care about is knowing how its being utilized.  This is not only what I posted in our internal thread on the CMR, but these will no doubt be questions I raise again during our meetings with CCP this coming week, as many times as it takes till I have the answers.

Other than the chance to review the CMR, provide feedback, and comment on preliminary patch notes and a few other topics that the devs are working on and asking advice from in our internal forums, it's been a fairly uneventful week.  This isn'tall that unusual, however - when you factor in that half of CCP (both Shanghai and Reykjavik staff) were visiting and presenting at E3, and the Dragon Boat festival in Shanghai which shut down the office for several days of holiday.  We did successfully poke CCP Dolan about follow-up on several CPM structural items he's working to set up on our behalf, and despite the fact that he, too, was waiting on staff to return from holiday and E3 the plan is for us to meet again this week to check up on his progress.   Last but not least, we have one other meeting already set up with one of the most important staff members in CCP Shanghai - which I'm hoping will include some much-needed information about the direction of Dust's development and any possible road map the teams may be following these days.  I'll be sure to ask about what I can and can't report, and will see you again next week with the latest news!

Friday, June 7, 2013

CPM Activity Report #1 – June 7, 2013

Greetings mercenaries and capsuleers interested in the ground war,

As requested and promised, I'd like to take the time here to report on the activities of the CPM to-date, and shed some light on the good, the bad, and the ugly with regards to the launch of the CSM's sister institution. There will be no TL, DR version – either you care about this type of thing or you don't and those that do will appreciate the extra level of detail. Not only am I bringing you all up to speed to where we stand today, but this will be the first weekly report I shall be providing as to the council's activity and progress. Needless to say the weekly version will be quite a bit shorter, but with as much detail and commentary. These reports will also chronicle the progress that CCP makes in reaching out to the community through the CPM, as this is a partnership that relies on their cooperation as well as our own time and effort.


The Protocouncil

The six of us have now been in office just over four weeks since we all signed our NDA's at CCP's headquarters in Reykjavik the Sunday following FanFest. Also attending were the incoming CSM8 representatives and outgoing CSM7 representatives present in Iceland, along with several more incoming CSM8 members attending via Skype. Both the CPM and the CSM were introduced all around, there was some general discussion with CCP Dolan regarding proper Skype channel usage, and than both councils were given the task of voting for officers. We're still waiting on Dolan to report the results of the CPM vote, but in the meantime we were able to jump immediately into Skype with CCP and begin communicating daily once we arrived back from the trip.

Many of you are wondering what this CCP / CPM Skype channel is like, and its fairly straightforward. CCP CommanderWang and CCP Frame are the two most active community members that engage the CPM, and are both easy to get ahold of during Shanghai's business hours, or often later depending on how many extra hours they put in during the evenings and weekends. From the development side, we have frequent engagement with game designer CCP SoxFour and software engineer CCP NullArbor, both members of "Team True Grit" who work on Dust514 out of the Reykjavik Office. True Grit is the team responsible for Planetary Conquest, and other aspects of the EVE / Dust link, and its unfortunate that these developers don't also work on weapons and equipment balancing because they are both so helpful and open in sharing their progress with us and inviting us to help with feedback wherever possible.

Beyond these five, we have a pool of other contacts present in the channel that stop by from time to time, though the dialogue tends to be more casual and social than business-oriented. This is to be expected, as the primary Skype channel that the CSM utilizes has traditionally been more successful as an ice-breaker hangout than a primary place of business, and most actual work is conducted in dedicated team channels and conference call meetings. Such advanced structure is not yet established with the Shanghai studio, but deciphering how the Dust514 team operates and working to demonstrate that we can be effectively inserted into the development process is one of the CPM's highest priorities.

The other added benefit to the Skype channel is that whenever there's been a server / patch issue that needs quick resolution, or an unexpected bug that the other teams need rapid feedback from, CCP hasn't hesitated to jump in the channel and ask the CPM to hop on their consoles and help them figure out what's working and what isn't. Ultimately our goal on the CPM is to shift the conversation from a reactive interaction to a proactive interaction, where designers (especially those working on balance / core mechanics such as CCP Wolfman) are approaching us with ideas early in the refinement process and asking for input, rather than us simple reflecting on changes that have hit the server and discussing the impact they've made.

This early "shop talk", once we start seeing it regularly, will be where the input we gather daily from all of you becomes the most valuable. This is of course much easier said than done, and it's taken several -years- and seven iterations of the Council of Stellar Management to open this pipeline and achieve stakeholdership, if we can set up something similar over the next several months the CPM will still be making remarkably faster progress.

Uplink to Uprising

Now that we've covered the overview of our initial communications setup, its time to jump into the events that transpired in the past few weeks. The first order of business tasked on the CPM once our NDA's were signed was to rapidly produce as much feedback based upon our Fanfest playtest of Uprising before it went live on Tranquility, and we drafted up our notes in a shared doc and zipped it off to CCP.

What did it contain? The most critical item at the top of our list was Control problems – both with the dualshock and the M/KB, including numerous aiming bugs and DS3 sensitivity issues.

Also in the critical items category was the need to reduce the enormous "SP sink" built into the first iteration of the skill tree, and we presented CCP with spreadsheets demonstrating the extra investment required to get into particular battlefield roles. We also discussed the urgent need for both character-to-character isk transfer as well as item trade, both of which are actively under development as we speak. Rounding out the document was a list of first-impression balancing feedback, including all the obvious issues such as the terrible HMG performance, superiority of Logi suits, excessive TAC rifle ROF, Laser ADS obscurity, and the need to restore the LLAV built-in repair functionality.

But all of the nuts and bolts aside, the CPM recognized a much more serious problem – the order in which CCP had planned to release the various components of the Uprising expansion. Combined with many of the afore-mentioned issues that needed immediate resolution, the CPM realized the need to postpone the PC release date in order to give CCP time to address several issues (including the skill tree) and the players time to adjust to the new build before their territory was on the line. On behalf of the CPM, I contacted Executive Producer CCP Jian and requested an immediate meeting to discuss the Uprising rollout, and not only did he oblige us 48 hours later, he brought with him an entourage of designers, programmers, and community team members in order to strategize and come up with a course of action. The meeting was a success, and we secured not only the release date change but also the skill tree revamp and a character respec.

Darkest before the Dawn

In the couple of weeks since Uprising's release, communications slowed a bit between CCP and the CPM as we jumped into playing the hell out of the game and the developers jumped into grinding more out of the hotfix and patch backlog, but there were certainly significant developments worth reporting.

An extensive discussion between the CPM and CCP regarding AWOXing culminating in a fix involving the ability for squad commanders to kick members on the warbarge, useful also for those sneaky noobs that find their way into your Planetary Conquest battle despite any corporate policy.

In addition, the CPM and CCP engaged in their first joint playtest session, with several developers joining squads for non-competitive PC matches to gather performance data and to observe the build live on the servers. Not only was it enjoyable for both parties involved, CCP was able to use the test to identify and fix a memory leak.

Forums have now been set up for the CPM, and white tags were also assigned so that everyone can easily spot the CPM comments in each thread. I also drafted both a forum-use guide and in response to a request from David Spd,  compiled a series of CPM introductions where you can find out all the ways to get in contact with us.

The forums consist of both a public Council Chamber as well as a hidden forum in the same category titled "Internal CPM deliberations and information keeping" that can only be accessed by CPM members and CCP personnel. The hidden forum is the area where we can raise issues and discuss works in progress without troll clutter and with the freedom to talk openly behind the protection of the NDA. The real benefit in terms of advancing communications with the CPM is that many CCP employees are much more likely to to share information in a clean, organized subforum where they can easily find feedback from the CPM without having to deal with pings and flashing from Skype while they work. The establishment of the CPM internal forum has already begin to accelerate the flow of information in both directions thread by thread.

That being said – I want to be explicitly clear with everyone that despite the obvious progress in setting up basic communications, much of CCP Shanghai's internal working structure, personnel roster, team composition, and work practices are still a mystery to the CPM. This is compounded by the fact that just as in Reykjavik, almost all of these are usually moving targets. We diligently share intel and compile our own notes as we get to know the various developers and community staff, but we simply lack the years of time spent working with this studio that the CSM has spent working with CCP 's headquarters. And while we certainly have as much curiosity as the rest of you do about how the sausage gets made and how we can help, it's going to take time (and CCP sharing more information with us) to get us to the point where our understanding of how Dust514 is built is as transparent as the CSM's understanding of how EVE Online gets built.

Which brings us to this week.

Precision Strike

Called by CCP Commander Wang and CCP Frame, our second seriously productive meeting with CCP took place in the middle of the Tuesday night for those of us in North America, the crack of Wednesday dawn in Europe, and the middle of the Wednesday afternoon in Shanghai. We had met with CCP Dolan once in the weeks between to discuss clerical matters such as officer voting, forum setup, and need for more information so we can better focus our ongoing feedback, but that meeting was more of a chance for the CPM to air its concerns and to outline the support we needed from CCP.

In contrast, this week's meeting was a chance for Wang and Frame to discuss not only the recent Human Endurance and Templar Manhunt events and for the CPM to share feedback, but to outline their vision of future events (unfortunately the details of which are on their timetable, not ours). The CPM discussed everything from the need for more enticing and usable rewards (higher dropsuit count, more variety/choice so that we aren't stuck with gear we're not specced for, etc) all the way to the fact that many of the events held so far feel like an excessive grind and were too limited in availability across timezones.

However, the highlight of the meeting was learning that the Community Management Reports (CMR's) would be finally be furnished to the CPM, starting the next day, and each following week from here out. The CMR's are a weekly compilation of the Community team's assessment of player activity and feedback, and those that attended Fanfest 2013 and attended the roundtables were shown an example of these reports in person. Each CMR contains an analysis of the most popular topics on the forums, initially produced using software metrics but accompanied by an impressive amount of human-compiled clarification and supporting documentation, including many dozens of direct player quotes from the most productive and focused threads. The first CMR was indeed furnished to us as requested the following day, and landed at 23 pages of material. Interestingly enough, this is not a document that is produced for EVE Online nor given to the CSM, this is an exclusive tool that Wang and Frame utilize on the community's behalf to make sure the development teams are consistently provided with a big-picture snapshot of the state of player feedback.

At times, working to secure stakeholdership for CSM7 felt like an ice climb - upward-ratcheting progress through extremely well-placed steps and constant awareness that aggression and speed brought too many dangerous risks. In contrast, establishing the CPM has been more like spelunking - a hazardous rappel into unmapped territory. 

In this case, finally being given a copy of the CMR was like igniting a signal flare in a dark room, shedding first light on the process used to turn your forum comments into developer advice. If you attended the Fanfest 2013 CPM roundtable – you remember my insistence that the CPM get a chance to observe and comment on the CMR each week, a request I made again with CCP Jian during our talks surrounding the Uprising pushback, and followed up with CCP Dolan as well. Securing access to this document is a major step forward for the CPM and undisputed evidence that CCP is taking their commitment to increased communication seriously.

Till we meet again....

We'll be spending the weekend reading the CMR through line by line, learning as much as we can about its application, and providing our own feedback to CCP internally on the material contained in the report. Our goal here is to find ways to improve the quality of feedback reaching the developers, make sure that what the community teams hear from the community reflects what the CPM hears from the community, and to help steer public conversation towards specific fixes-under-development and the most critical unresolved issues. We don't know exactly what we'll find out or what we'll be able to share quite yet, but I'll be sure to check in with you next week with our first impressions.

Thanks for taking the time to educate yourself on the CPM and its early development, and I look forward to sharing more as this process unfolds. I'll wrap this up with a tip of the hat to all the trolls still standing on the sidelines  smacktalking CCP like an enemy combatant. While they continue to wail about the fact that the devs don't listen to them, we continue to make weekly progress obtaining more and more information about what's going on figuring out better ways for everyone to help. I know at least a few of them will learn to HTFU, get onboard, and get in touch with us - the rest will continue to be left in the dust*.


-H. Jagerblitzen

*I couldn't resist. ;-)